~ The Dark Crystal ~

Drake retreated posthaste the moment he emerged beyond the portal. Foul miasma swirled around his feet and seemed to reach toward him, forcing him back further. The grass beneath had turned into disgusting sludge, filling the air with the stench of decay. Raising his gaze, Drake noticed the miasma spilling from every nook and cranny of Modera's tower. Most of it was coming from the entrance door, however, where it crept along the floor and walls, leaving only the area in-between untouched. Or so Drake thought. A closer look revealed all of it to be connected by tiny strands resembling spiderwebs.

“What's going on here? What is this?” wondered Drake.

Alyssa knelt down and thrust a finger into the miasma. It traveled up her flesh in seconds and caused her face to flash with agony. She leapt back quickly and the strands dispersed, unable to reach any further beyond the tower.

Rubbing her flesh, she waltzed back carefully. “I'm not quite sure what it could be, but it seems to be alive. Perhaps even intelligent. And certainly dangerous.”

Drake frowned. “But we do have to get up there somehow. I guess we could destroy a wall and hope this stuff clears out, but if the tower collapses instead...”

“The walls are about the only thing keeping it from toppling over, so scratch that,” interjected Maximilian. “How about you try your sword instead? Maybe its powers can banish this too.”

“Good idea.” So Drake pulled Kal'ed voul'ch from a battered sheath he had found in Cardul's castle. A momentary flash of light emanated from within the blade and the miasma spilling from the door dispersed instantly. All that remained retreated deeper into the tower and cowered by the door where Drake had first met Aramal wan Dago.

“Reminds me of the time we got separated after Dorr'n Selkesch downed Voluere,” said Maximilian. “So let's stay close in case these … things try to strike from behind.” Drake nodded and they were about to move when Maximilian thrust a hand in front of them. “Wait! I need to check on Pagan first.”

He dashed around the tower and raced up a nearby hill. While not as good a vantage point as the top of Modera's tower would have been, he could still spot the walls of Pagan on the horizon. Nothing had torn them down or turned them to dust, and no storm could be seen anywhere nearby. Maximilian sighed in relief and pressed a hand upon his chest, only now noticing his racing heart. He calmed it down with a couple of deep breaths, then hurried back to the tower, steering clear of the miasma that seemed to reach toward him.

“So, how does it look?” asked Alyssa, hoping that Pagan's condition would apply to Mimeidr too.

“Seems fine, for now. And I couldn't see a storm nearby. So let's finish this before it happens.”

All of them agreed and formed a triangle formation where each of them kept an eye on a different direction. Advancing that way took a little longer than usual, allowing the miasma to retreat with every step. It did so into to the back and the front, maybe hoping to surprise them as they climbed the stairs. Maximilian brandishing Elegnis foiled that plan. Its power might have paled compared to Kal'ed voul'ch's, but it still kept the miasma at bay and caused its edges to unravel.

Alyssa saw the miasma seep through every crack of the tower, slowly closing the opening behind them. Certainly no danger while they stayed together, but it would have been foolish to assume that the miasma was all that had taken root within the tower. Alyssa even felt another presence, yet she wasn't able to ascertain what it was. Might have been too far away, or something so weak that it wasn't worth worrying about.

They hastened their steps while climbing the stairs as walking side by side was utterly impossible. Maximilian took the rear to shield Alyssa and the miasma writhed in what could have been anger. Small feelers lashed out only to burn, but this creature—if it was one—felt either no pain or didn't care.

Against all expectations, they made it to the door that had long ago been sealed. Now it lay wide open, looking like something had smashed it from the other side. The miasma was coming from within, obscuring everything that lay beyond. A distant grinding sound could also be heard, resembling a windmill whose mechanism was clogged.

“So this crystal is somewhere in there?” said Maximilian.

Drake nodded. “It should be. If it hasn't spilled out too.”

“Then how about you clear this up so we can get a better view of what we're dealing with?”

Kal'ed voul'ch flared up and the miasma scattered momentarily. Yet more kept coming before the passage could be cleansed, no matter how often Drake tried. He might as well have fought a blaze with nothing but a bucket.

“Let me give it a try,” said Alyssa and charged up an arrow. It tore a hole into the miasma which collapsed almost instantly. All it managed to reveal was a muddy form slithering past the opening. One whose size was impossible to determine in what little time they had.

Maximilian stepped forward quickly and sent a dozen beams of light into the murky beyond. None of them got even close to hitting anything, as nothing could be seen or heard. “Slippery bastard!” he yelled and tried again. The result didn't change.

Drake clutched his blade and looked from Maximilian to Alyssa to the gaping doorway into the unknown. “Let's just go inside and keep close. Maybe it won't be as impenetrable once we cross the threshold.”

“Maybe. But isn't there supposed to be some kind of swamp inside?” said Alyssa.

“Yeah. No idea how it deep it is, though. I don't suppose you can stop us from sinking?”

“I could. Changing somebody's weight isn't particularly difficult. But if I don't know what we're dealing with, then we might just float away, never to reach our goal. And I cannot cancel the spell from afar.”

“So … you want to go there first?”

Alyssa chortled, her eyes focused on the billowing miasma. “I'd rather not. But I guess we have no choice. So one of you please grab my hand while the other stands guard in case something happens.”

“Let me,” said Maximilian. “Drake, you strike instantly if something happens.”

Drake nodded and Maximilian grabbed Alyssa's right hand. She advanced step by step, her left hand reaching out and her feet testing the ground. Drake was tense all throughout, his arms raised high and Kal'ed voul'ch throbbing in his grip. He too followed the others a step behind, his eyes jumping from Alyssa to the doorway to the ground, scanning for the faintest of movements.

A second later, Alyssa was yanked off her feet and vanished so fast that she could never even scream. Maximilian followed instantly, unable to let go in time. Drake stood there flabbergasted, Kal'ed voul'ch still raised. A “Dammit!” burst from his lips before he raced after them.

The moment he stepped through, everything turned black.

Rough fingers closing around Drake's shoulders and caused his eyes to snap open. A shadowy figure was leaning over him, perhaps trying to devour his face. He shot up instantly, but the shadow stepped aside while freeing his shoulders. Leaping to his feet, Drake spun around and reached for his blades. Yet his hands grasped nothing. Just empty air above his underwear. Even stranger, he was standing on a bed. One that seemed oddly familiar.

“What are you doing, Drake? Did I wake you from a nightmare or something?” spoke the shadow in an equally familiar voice. One that couldn't possibly be real.

Drake gulped and raised his eyes. There, in front of him, stood his father, looking just like he had done before Modera had entered the picture. A smirk played around his lips and his eyebrows were raised high.

“How...?” was all Drake could muster.

“How what?”

Drake cleared his throat and swallowed hard, also blinking a few times. Glenn didn't fade, and neither did Drake's room. “How can you be here? Shouldn't you be … dead? And your essence destroyed?”

Glenn's eyebrows rose higher, if that was even possible. “What are you talking about? You must have had one strange dream. And that on your birthday.”

“My … birthday?”

“You can't have forgotten already. Not after all these preparations. And that's why I woke you too. Emily's downstairs. Guess she wants to be the first to give you a present.” His eyes fell to Drake's underwear. “So get dressed please, would you?”

Drake knew this couldn't be real. It was simply impossible. But if Emily was truly waiting downstairs, then he had to see her. If only for a moment. Might have been his final chance after all. So he threw on whatever clothes he could find—most likely those of the previous day—and stormed down the stairs.

He froze at the bottom, his heart thumping and his mind reeling. Emily was standing in the living room, a glass of lemonade in hand and a neatly wrapped package sitting next to her on the table. Drake couldn't remember what she had gotten him as a present, and it didn't really matter. Seeing her again, dressed in a lovely white blouse and a short black skirt, was all he ever wanted. At least for the first few seconds. Then he crossed the room in a hurry and flung his arms around her body, inhaling the flowery scent of her scarlet hair.

Emily stood there like a statue, both hands clutching her glass so it wouldn't fall down. “Uhm … Drake, what are you doing?”

“Giving you a hug.”

“Yeah, I noticed that. But why?”

“Because I haven't seen you in so long.”

Emily frowned and wiggled around, but Drake wouldn't let go. “I was with you all evening, remember? So could you please let go? You're crushing me.”

Drake quickly backed off and glued his eyes to her face, watching her glistening lips and her lovely eyes and the confusion washing over her. He meant to say something at first, but he couldn't. It's like he had fallen in love all over again, unable to utter even a word, too taken by her beauty.

“Could you please stop staring? You're freaking me out! What's wrong?”

“Nothing. Nothing at all. It honestly couldn't be any better. Although I'm not sure how it's possible.” The thought that all of this might be a devious trap sprang into his mind, but Emily's bemused smile washed away his doubts. Her body felt real, even smelled as such, so it couldn't be fake. It had to be reality. Everything else would have been too cruel. Sure, it might have felt real too. And was far too complex for a simple dream … but he didn't want that life. Not a fraction of it. Not when Emily and his father and everyone else had to die in result.

Emily put down her glass and grabbed her present instead. It was just wide enough to cover both her hands and about as big as her head. Still didn't ring any bells, which served Drake just fine. Because then the surprise would actually be genuine, at least for as long as it took for his mind to remember.

“So … happy birthday! I hope it's to your liking.” She thrust the package into his hands and he turned it for a bit, shaking it up and down. “Just open it up! There's no point in guessing now.”

“Okay, okay.” So he grabbed the wrapping paper and tore it off. Emily frowned at the sight, having spent so long to make it look good, only for Drake to hardly even pay attention. Still, there was nothing to be done. Except to hope that he liked what was inside.

Drake didn't. Because the thing he found was not what he had gotten that day. It wasn't even present at all, just a horrible surprise. Tendrils made of darkness burst from within and wrapped themselves around his head. He clutched and pulled and screamed, but the tendrils were all slippery, refusing to be gripped. They covered his eyes and mouth and then began to slip inside, clogging his nose and throat and stealing all his breath. He stumbled and fell and pain surged through his back. Still, he didn't give up. His fingers slipped underneath the mass and tried to pull it off, but the thing was like rubber and glue, refusing to be moved.

rn it! Bu— it! —urn it! spoke a voice inside his head. One he almost didn't recognize as a part of him had truly hoped that none of this had actually taken place. But if his present was now a monster, then his peaceful life had long since vanished.

He called forth his powers, but they wouldn't listen. It's like he was a normal human again. But that couldn't be. He was a vampire. Had been for some time now. And there was nothing that he, or anyone else, could do about that. So he tried to remember the moment when Modera had rammed her fangs into his flesh and sucked out his blood. His body weakened at the same time, its lungs devoid of oxygen.

Modera's memories came gushing forth and mingled with the story Cardul had told, now painting the truth of what had happened that day. Rage awoke inside Drake's chest and power swelled throughout his body. A muffled scream escaped his throat and fire sprang from his palms, quickly engulfing the wriggling mass and even traveling inside Drake's body. He howled in agony and clawed at his chest as his flesh burned away from the inside out.

The fire died moments later and he could feel his flesh grow again, quickly repairing his lungs and his throat. A laborious breath caused his chest to rise while the room itself began to blur. Pushing himself up, he met Emily's empty gaze. Her lips distorted into a manic smile and suddenly she was upon him, her nails resembling claws and her teeth glittering like crystals. He grabbed her arms and slithered backward, having not expected the kind of strength she could muster. Her muscles swelled as they hit the wall, turning her into a monstrosity with Emily's face smiling back.

Drake kneed her in the stomach and screeched in pain. Her body was like rock, hard enough to break his bones. Her hands were equally powerful and doing their best to tear his arms off. He had to strain his muscles to the limit so his body wouldn't shatter, but even that seemed insufficient in the long run.

“Emily, are you still inside there somewhere?”

A deafening roar was the only reply he got.

“Thought so. It was just an illusion after all.”

Summoning flames once more, he caused the creature's arms to glow and drip away. The moment it happened, the beast backed off. But then it came right back, its massive fists aiming to crush Drake's skull. He ducked away and dashed through the room, heading for the front door and throwing it open. A black void lay beyond and seemed to reach out the moment he stepped upon the threshold. Reeling back, he slammed against the beast, whose arms closed around his chest. It raised him from the floor and then began to push, its muscles swelling further and a roar escaping its throat.

Drake screamed as his ribs cracked. He tried to raise his arms, but both of them were pinned to his torso. Therefore, he thrust them against the creature's body and made them burst into flames once more. The beast trembled and groaned, yet it didn't let go. Seething pain erupted in Drake's chest and his powers failed him for a second. He instantly renewed his effort, outputting as much fire as possible. If he was just quick enough, he could avoid getting turned into mush.

The creature must have followed a similar train of thought, because even when it's body started melting, it simply wouldn't let go. The room began to wobble and distort when its body started pooling on the ground. And then, for no discernible reason, something started tugging on Drake's waist. It was an odd, yet familiar sensation. One that urged him to let go and reach for the invisible weights instead. His blades manifested as he did so.

Pulling them out, he thrust them behind his back and started slicing through the beast's body. It let go instantly and tumbled backward. Drake fell down, then spun around, dashing with his swords pointing away from his body. The beast raised its arms to shield its body, so Drake dropped down and sliced an inverted V into its torso. The moment his blades met, he demanded their powers to mingle.

A massive explosion rocked the room and flung Drake to the wall. Splinters burrowed themselves into his flesh, so he quickly shielded his face while dropping down. Once on the ground, he dared a glance and saw the creature lurch toward him, its body barely held together by thin crystalline threads. Emily's face dangled down the side, tears running down her cheeks. Drake watched it for a moment, then averted his gaze, his lips pressed together in frustration.

One more strike and it was done. The room fell apart and everything went dark.

Contrary to Drake, Alyssa woke to a scene she had no memories of. It found her walking through the woods near the village she grew up in, with Feyadal by her side. Disbelief sprang to her mind, followed by a sense of danger. Yet she didn't draw a weapon nor stop in her tracks. Her lips opened, and then closed, uttering not a sound.

“What's wrong? You're usually more talkative,” said Feyadal with a worried look on his face.

Alyssa processed his speech, his inflection, his tone of voice, all of which appeared to be the real deal. But it didn't change that he was dead. Or should have been. Having missed his final moment didn't change that.

Feyadal stopped and turned toward her. “Alyssa, what's going on? You getting cold feet?”

“Cold feet? What for?”

Feyadal furrowed his brow. “Scouting out the darkelf camp? The one we assume might be gathering forces to attack Mimeidr?”

Alyssa scoured her memories and found no event pertaining to what was happening. Feyadal would never have been chosen for such a mission anyway.

Swallowing her breath, Alyssa spun around and pressed a knife to Feyadal's throat. “Who or what are you?” she yelled.

Feyadal turned slowly, his eyes quivering. “What are you talking about, Aly? It's me, Fey … your partner.”

“Feyadal is dead! So this has to be some kind of trap. An illusion, perhaps.”

Feyadal gulped, accidentally causing the knife to slice into his skin. Ignoring the blood trickling down his neck, he peered deep into Alyssa's eyes. “Why would you think that? Look at me! I'm as real as I can be!” He grabbed her other hand and thrust it against his soft, warm flesh. “See? This is no trick or illusion. It's just me!”

Alyssa wrested herself free, then forced Feyadal against a rocky outcrop lining the road. “It doesn't matter what I see or feel. I entered Modera's pocket dimension and then came here, to a time I don't remember. So stop taking his form!”

“I'm not taking anyone's—“

Alyssa grabbed his head and smashed it against the rocks. “Reveal yourself or I will kill you where you stand!” Her voice trembled, betraying her uncertainty.

Tears glistened in Feyadal's eyes. “Please, Aly, you have to believe me! I have no idea what you're talking about, but I can assure you that I'm real!”

Alyssa hesitated for a moment, her eyes locking with his. Then she pulled back her knife, eliciting a momentary sigh of relief, only to thrust her blade all the way through Feyadal's throat. A wheezing cough fled his lips, spraying blood onto her clothes. He crumbled to the ground, his skin turning ashen.

Alyssa watched his body for a while, victorious glee quickly overtaken by utter dismay. She fell to her knees and clutched his throat, pouring all her magic into healing his injury. But even when his flesh began to close, his eyes turned dull, the glimmer of life fading quickly. Alyssa's heart dropped into her stomach and tears of sorrow burst from her eyes.

“Come on, you can't do this to me! Not again!”

Her body burst into bluish flames as she gathered all her magic to replenish his essence before it could fade into the unknown. So distracted, she didn't notice the forest bearing down on her. Not before it was too late.

Vines swung around her arms and legs, first one by one, then confining all her limbs at once. She toppled to the ground, incapable of moving, and the earth erupted all around, locking her in place.

“That's what you get for worrying about others,” spoke a familiar voice from close behind. She turned her head and saw Ri'zzar. He looked different from before, his skin unscarred and his golden hair blowing in the wind.

“What do you want from me?” yelled Alyssa while wiggling around, desperately trying to free herself. The vines moved back and forth, scratching up her skin, but the earth refused to budge.

Ri'zzar smirked. “To end your journey so close to its completion. Exactly like what happened to me.”

“You're not even real! You're just a figment of my mind … or something.”

“That may be, but that doesn't mean I cannot kill you.” He pulled a sword from thin air and pierced her left shoulder as easily as one would cut a cake. Seething pain erupted in her flesh and a prickly sensation spread from the point of impact as though something was eating her up from the inside out. “I could just wait and let the poison do its work now, but that would be just boring.”

He walked toward the front, flashed a wicked smile, then beheaded Feyadal before Alyssa could even realize what he had planned. She forced her eyes shut instantly, but the image of his rolling head still scorched itself into her mind. Only the poison spreading through her flesh was worse.

“So, is this all you have to offer? Would be quite a shame, really.”

Alyssa's vision blurred, which blinking couldn't fix. “Then you should have fought me fair and square ... instead of trapping me in here!” She moaned in pain and swallowed hard, aggravating her throat for no obvious reason. Her body burned up at the same time, making her feel like she was lying naked in the sweltering heat of a summer's day.

“Perhaps … but then this wouldn't quite as delicious.” He rammed his blade through her back and all the way into the ground. The poison gripped her heart in seconds. She screeched in agony and stemmed herself against the earth, her body trembling top to bottom and the world spinning all around. Goosebumps and sweat covered her skin and her heart felt like it was going to burst.

Ri'zzar knelt down and smiled like a demon, his lips appearing to stretch from ear to ear and sharp teeth glistening in the darkness of his mouth. “Come on, Alyssa. Do something, and quickly, or your body will decay from within.”

Please, Mimeidr, grant me a momentary burst of strength like you did for Feyadal!

But her prayer went unanswered. Mimeidr did not exist in whatever this place was.

Closing her eyes, she gathered what little magic she could muster. Not to mount a desperate offensive, but to erect a thin barrier enveloping her body, invisible to the naked eye. It pulsed and stretched and faded, then emerged once more, repeating the procedure.

Ri'zzar cocked his head, his eyebrows rising slightly. “Now what are you doing? Gathering strength, I see, but for what, exactly?” He waited a moment, then impaled both of her legs less than a second apart. Stomping back, he dropped down once more and spat into her face. “Tell me!”

Alyssa's concentration shattered, yet she managed not to scream. Channeling the pain into her magic, the barrier burst through her vines and the earth, instantly setting her free. She didn't have much strength to move, so she gripped her knife, propelled her body forward, and impaled Ri'zzar's throat just like she had done with Feyadal.

Blackness swallowed her vision as Ri'zzar's crystalline body shattered on the ground. The earth itself followed suit, plunging Alyssa into darkness.

Maximilian came to in his bedroom and instantly realized that something was wrong. Not because of his location, but because the other side of his bed was empty. The room itself was also veiled in silence despite a window standing open.

He rolled out of bed, realized his sword was missing, and fell to his knees to reach into the darkness underneath his bed. A spare sword had been fastened to the frame, in case an assassin tried to off him in his sleep. Which hadn't happened yet, but one could never be too careful. He pulled the blade free and rose once more, his eyes surveying the room. Nothing else seemed amiss. Still, he only advanced slowly and approached the door from the side. When it didn't fly open, he carefully reached out.

The room beyond was also empty, yet something felt off.

“Jessica?” he yelled out loud.

No reply ever came. Just his voice echoed back.

He mustered the windows, the ceiling, the walls, the floor, but still he couldn't tell why his stomach tingled in an awful sort of way. So he breathed in deep, then took a step.

Nothing happened, except his stomach cramping up.

The next step was deliberately slow. Yet when his foot touched the ground with only a fraction of its surface, a pendulum came flying from the wall, a circular saw attached to its tip. It sliced through the air in a frenzy, lusting for his blood.

Maximilian jumped back, but the blade sliced open his flesh nonetheless. Blood sprayed the ground and a barrage of arrows burst from the ceiling. Their impact was so powerful that all of them were buried in the ground. Thankfully, Maximilian was already out of reach, his left hand clutching the gruesome injury stretching across the inside of his right arm. The arrows splintered upon impact, however, parts of which burrowed themselves in his naked feet.

He pulled the splinters one by one, leaving a puddle of blood beneath his feet. Afterward, he tried to put some pressure on his right foot. The excruciating pain that followed sent him falling onto his ass, his face scrunched up.

Groaning, he dragged himself toward his bed and pulled off the sheets. Wrapping them around his injuries lessened the pain, but every step was still like walking on glass.

He walked in circles for a while, hoping for the pain to dull. When that didn't happened, he slammed his feet down, his teeth clenched tight. Then he started running.

Fire erupting from the ground nearly stopped him in his tracks. He jumped right over it, singeing the sheets, and then kept going, dodging from side to side, ducking away, and in one instance parrying another circular saw before it could slice through his neck.

When he reached the door, it refused to budge. A grinding noise then reached his ears. He spun around and saw the now featureless wall close in on him. The same happened to the side chamber, so he couldn't duck out of the way. And jumping out the window was a no-go, unless he wanted to end up splattered on the ground.

“You've got to be kidding me!”

He turned on his heels and smacked the door with his sword, both with the blade and the hilt. It caused a few scratches, but that was all.

Looking over his shoulder, he saw the wall had gotten dangerously close already.

Next, he threw himself against the door. It shook in its frame and caused his shoulder to ache. Still, he tried again and again.

The door remained firmly seated.

He glanced once more. His body was close to being flattened. Even the window would have offered more of a chance at survival.

“Goddammit!”

Taking a step back, he kicked the door with all his might. Excruciating agony rippled through his injured feet, threatening to make him fall. Still, he kept going, even when rivers of blood were seeping through his sheets. His teeth were also digging into his lips, trying to exchange one pain with another. It didn't make much difference.

With the wall stroking his back, he kicked once more, a furious scream resounding from deep in his throat. The wood cracked and his foot shot through. The hole scraped against his flesh and the wall kept pushing.

He was almost out of time. And freeing his leg was already impossible. There wasn't enough space to back out. Forcing his left hand into the hole and scratching it up, he looked for a way to open the door. To his surprise, the key was stuck inside. He turned it in a flash and the door clicked open. Shoving and hobbling, he made his way into the corridor and fell over as he yanked his bleeding leg free.

The wall touched down a second later, its impact rumbling through the building.

“Well done, Maximilian. I knew you would have made for a good tool,” spoke a woman from behind him, her voice seductive and arrogant at the same time. Maximilian didn't even need to turn around to realize it was Modera.

She leaned down and started to wrap her arms around his chest. Maximilian used that chance to spring to his feet and stagger her against the wall. She shrieked in an amused sort of way and didn't step aside even when he spun around to press his blade against her throat.

Glancing at the weapon, she giggled like a little girl. “Do you really think a simple sword could kill the Mad Queen?”

“It's worth a try. Especially since Modera is already dead!” He pushed the blade further and her body turned to smoke. It wafted around his back, accompanied by manic laughter. Maximilian quickly spun around, slicing nothing but air.

“My turn!” yelled Modera as invisible hands grabbed Maximilian's body and propelled him against the far wall. There he was glued to the rocks, incapable of lifting even a finger. “Now what should I do? Kill you? Torture you? Or how about I make you mine like I originally intended?” Her icy breath stroked his neck, sending goosebumps up his flesh.

“You'd have to be vampire to turn me. And you're not! If anything, you're a pale imitation of what Modera once was.”

His body was flipped over as Modera took shape. She leaned in closer, her head slightly turned and her arms locked innocently behind her back. “Are you sure about that? Then how about I ram my fangs into your flesh and we see what happens?”

Her face distorted with manic glee as she shot toward his neck, not waiting for an answer. Her sharp fangs tore into his flesh and he could feel his blood being drained in seconds. His strength faded away, his limbs became paralyzed, and then he slid toward the ground and crumbled like a doll cut from its strings.

Darkness engulfed him as his heartbeat thundered in his ears.

No memories filled Maximilian's skull. He just woke up and felt … different. His muscles appeared fuller, his senses sharper, and the world had somehow gained a whole new spectrum of colors. It overwhelmed him for a moment, so he closed his eyes and focused on all the days and nights he had trained in his room, unable to see what trap he would spring, yet perfectly capable of avoiding any sort of injury. Someone with such mastery of his body could adapt to any situation. Even becoming a servant of evil.

Modera leaned over him as his eyes fluttered open. Her cleavage beckoned lasciviously, barely kept in check by the flimsy material of her purple dress. “Welcome back to the land … of the undead! Guess your theory was wrong after all.”

Maximilian thrust up both of his hands and grabbed Modera's jaw. He tore it open before she could react and crystalline dust rained upon his face.

Modera stumbled backward, the remnants of her jaw moving soundlessly. Maximilian followed hard on and picked up his sword in-between. He rammed it through her chest, the blade now veiled in fire. It was Elegnis again.

Modera melted with a shriek of despair and the castle cracked around her, soon bursting into pieces and plunging Maximilian into nothingness.

Drake awoke in the middle of a swamp, his legs halfway sunken into the muddy ground. He forced himself free with lumbering steps and made his way to a gnarly old tree whose branches were rising to the stormy sky like the hands of someone drowning in the bog. Only there, where his feet could actually emerge, did he dare to look around.

Red lightning streaked across the sky, occasionally striking the mud and causing it to boil. One of them set a tree on fire, which then began to writhe and crumble, screaming like a thousand souls. Drake eyed his suspiciously and stepped as far away as the ground would allow. Then he followed the lighting with his eyes.

Its source was the black crystal spinning in the sky. It was tilted noticeably, wobbling with every revolution, and showed three glowing cracks running down its sides. The lightning emerged from inside these cracks and the swamp shook every time it happened, as though an unseen giant was doing jumping jacks. But even with the constant flashing and shaking, Drake couldn't overlook a mayor fact: the edges of the cracks were glowing brighter than the rest. And they were shrinking, apparently repairing whatever damage had been caused.

“Oh no, you don't!” Drake stepped closer and lightning struck the area around his feet, blinding him for a second and turning the air seething hot. The next bolt of lightning would have struck his chest, but a queasy feeling made him step aside, narrowly avoiding having his flesh be burned.

He instantly drew Kal'ed voul'ch and spun it to the front, parrying yet another bolt of lightning that caused his arm to vibrate painfully, bones and all. Gritting his teeth, he smirked at the crystal. “That's all you got? Then you'll soon be history!”

Innumerable beams of light erupted from Kal'ed voul'ch as Drake swung it about, occasionally parrying or sidestepping other bolts of lightning. Most of his attacks were intercepted in mid-air, erupting into clouds of white and red, obscuring his vision.

Halting his attacks, he danced around, waiting for the sky to clear. Further cracks could now be seen, but many closed the moment he saw them. So he continued his onslaught, now firing without pause. Magical arrows joined him from afar, as did pillars of fire and other beams of light.

A storm of lightning struck the swamp, now entirely without control. Drake ran and jumped and ducked away, never ceasing his attack. A blazing surge of energy cut his chin during one of these moments, wrenching his head to the side, almost ripping it off. Then the sound of a shattering crystal stabbed his ears and rocked the sky. A vast silence took its space, punctuated by billowing clouds of dust drowning the swamp. The darkness rushing closer from the edge offered a stark contrast to the dirty gray. It was eating up the world, leaving nothingness behind.

Drake was about to run, despite there being no safe haven to be seen, when his feet were yanked off the ground. A maelstrom had formed where the crystal had been. It cleared up the dust and sucked up everything in reach, even tearing out trees as though there were toys. Alyssa and Maximilian were caught in it too, as Drake could see while being spun around them.

Their bodies spun faster and faster, rapidly approaching the center of the anomaly. It yanked their limbs in all directions, threatening to tear them apart. They screamed in agony and tried to hold themselves together, but fighting the maelstrom was a battle no one could win.

Then came a flash and everything went black.